Environment & Science

Major forest-thinning project at Lake Tahoe approved to reduce threat of a catastrophic wildfire

View of Lake Tahoe from Harrah's Hotel & Casino, Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
View of Lake Tahoe from Harrah's Hotel & Casino, Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Stacy Lynn Baum/Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Forest Service has won final approval for a major forest-thinning project. While cutting down trees may seem counterintuitive, it's designed to reduce the threat of a catastrophic wildfire at Lake Tahoe.

The project, set to begin this summer, calls for the reduction of hazardous fuels over a 10,000-acre forested area covering much of the California side of the lake's south shore.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the South Shore Fuel Reduction and Healthy Forest Restoration Project on Wednesday night, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported.

The project has been pending since 2004 — three years before the Angora Fire destroyed more than 250 homes on the south shore.

Plans call for the removal of trees and thinning of brush from Cascade Lake near Emerald Bay to Nevada's Stateline casino area. Much of the work will take place on Forest Service land near homes.

The project expands fuel-reduction activities already under way at Tahoe, and provides for machine thinning in sensitive areas near streams.

Allowing the use of low-impact mechanical equipment and pile burns in stream areas was a key recommendation of a bi-state fire commission formed after the 2007 Angora Fire.

A disagreement between the Forest Service and the Lahontan board over the level of review that was needed delayed the start of the south shore project.

"Eight years in the making is just too long. We should all be ashamed," said Martin Goldberg of the Lake Valley Fire Protection District.

Laurie Kemper, Lahontan's assistant executive director, acknowledged the project has taken longer than expected, but said there has been a high level of uncertainty over some of its impacts.

It was unclear whether standard erosion-control techniques for some elements of the project would be effective in protecting water quality, Kemper said.

A biological assessment of Saxon Creek will provide a unique opportunity to examine the effects of temporary roads, burn piles and whole tree skidding in stream zones, she added.

The south shore project comes after some members of Congress said the federal government's firefighting efforts don't seem to place enough emphasis on prevention, resulting in devastating wildfires.

They maintain flames burn lower to the ground and more slowly in areas that are treated to remove excess trees and vegetation.

Prior to being settled in the 19th century, wildfires periodically swept through the Sierra Nevada, killing smaller trees and brush while sparing larger trees. But decades of fire suppression have left Tahoe forests overloaded with trees and vegetation, heightening the risk for high-intensity wildfires.